Sunday book review – The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

9780141979373I recommend this book as the antivenom to George Monbiot’s book on rewilding (Feral), and vice versa, for this is a book that will make you like sheep and those who, to some extent, look after them in the hills. It’s a very good read and I enjoyed it very much.  However, this book is highly political in its narrative, though not nearly as obviously or openly as Monbiot’s book.

The Shepherd’s Life is well written and thoroughly engaging. Rebanks’s story is about those who work hard and, it seems, hardly play at all, to make a living from sheep in the Lake District.  The weather is tough, the hills are tough and the men are tough.  Shearing, lambing, sheep-worrying dogs, training your own sheepdog, buying, selling and looking after sheep are all in this book, and the tales are told very well.

And there are plenty of stories about the author’s childhood and the family of characters in which he grew up. They sound a bit curmudgeonly at times, but then so is the weather up in the fells and we keep being told that the sheep people shaped the landscape and it wouldn’t be like it is without them. There is a lot about the traditional nature of how things are done.

These hill folk don’t really like tourists (who are the mainstay of the local economy), and nor do they like townies (who are the mainstay of their agricultural subsidies). It would be easy to come away from this book thinking that the hill folk don’t like anyone who isn’t a sheep (and preferably a Herdwick), isn’t a farmer or isn’t from around ‘these parts’.  ‘What characters they are!’ we are invited to think.

The author didn’t take too much to school and so played a game which involved breaking as much expensive school equipment as possible and passing it off as an accident – how we laughed!

So why do I say this is a political book? Because it paints a picture of upland sheep farmers as if they really are a breed apart – independent, tough and trying to make ends meet by their own sweat and toil – which though it may be true, as far as it goes, doesn’t go far enough.  The purpose of raising sheep is to make money by selling them for meat and their wool and for that you need customers, but the customers’ needs and views never seem to cross the minds of these hill folk.  The disconnect between the supplier and the customer is immense in this excellent story, but it seems that these suppliers thinks the customer has to sympathise with and understand them – a reversal of the usual rules of business.  This is exactly the disconnect highlighted by the Curry Commission report after the foot and mouth outbreak.

This book is about those who own and rent land and so might better be titled ‘The Sheep Farmer’s Life’ but that would position the story much more firmly in the place of farmers being small businesses that have many of the struggles of other small businesses. The difference perhaps, is that the sheep farmer may be as income-poor as a second-hand car salesman or a baker but may be considerably richer in capital terms. But that’s a minor point.

Another difference is that most upland farms are highly dependent on subsidy cheques from you and me, via Defra, via the EU, via the Treasury but ultimately via you and me.  On many upland farms the stock enterprise operates at a loss and it is only the single farm payment (the subsidy) which makes the enterprise ‘profitable’. This is income support from the townies and the tourists to the upland farms that might merit a little gratitude, or at least acknowledgement, but it hardly gets a mention in this book.  There is mention of the man from the ministry who came to the farm to talk to the author’s grandfather about managing the meadows on the farm for wildlife; Grandad told his grandson that the trick was to agree to everything and then carry on regardless. How we laughed!

And the word traditional is used so often in this book – it seems, as a sign of approbation. But something being traditional does only mean that it hasn’t changed much for a long time. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t!  The coal mines were traditional and so were the shipyards, and so I guess were the gin-trap manufacturers, but they were all, rightly or wrongly, seen to be part of history rather than the future.  Traditional ways of life, when paid for by the rest of society, are a life-style choice. Sometimes people are trapped in that lifestyle through circumstances, sometimes they choose it through free choice (and examples of both occur in this book) but sheep farming is a traditional business which is now highly dependent on public subsidy so it would just be nice if those who have chosen or are forced to carry it out gave a nod towards the rest of us who are paying for it and then we’d be more inclined to continue to do so.

The book, which is a very good read, takes for granted that keeping sheep is a sustainable way to make money from these hills. It takes for granted that the meat production is of sufficient value to justify this land use. It neglects to discuss the impacts of this land use on wildlife, water quality, flood risk  or greenhouse gas emissions. But it is traditional, and it is, it seems, carried out by people who don’t much like townies and forms and regulations and the rest of the world – although they are not independent enough to turn down their subsidies.

If I were the NFU, I’d give a copy of this book to every MP and hope that they don’t ask any difficult questions about sheep farming. They probably wouldn’t because it is supremely well-written. It captures the toughness of the work and the character of the people very well. I once sheared a sheep, very badly, and had to sit down for a few minutes afterwards to recover and can only admire those who can shear a couple of hundred or more in a day. And I have, in the middle of the night, stuck my arm deep into a ewe to try to find the legs of the lamb she was trying to push out, and the passages describing lambing took me back to those distant and few occasions.  This is a very good read – you feel you are there, with the wind and rain on your face, and the curses of the authors’ farming friends and relations in your ears.  One can’t help but admire these folk – and we should admire them for what they do. But just because these tough people are doing the best they can doesn’t mean that we, as a society of hill folk, country folk and townies alike, are getting the best possible return from our investment in their efforts. And nor does it mean that we should keep sending our cheques to the hills so that they can feel ‘independent’.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks is published by Penguin books.


30 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks”

  1. Mark,loved your thoughts on Hill Sheep Farmers agree with most of your summary,brother-in-law for sure is one and for sure they work very hard for not that much income even with SFP especially if you worked out the income per hour.In general think they do it because they enjoy that lifestyle of looking after animals and of course they are not against tourists and townies it is just a bit of fun to them to make out they are but of course they would not like that part of those two groups who go Hare Coursing amongst pregnant Ewes or others who leave gates open or indeed go in afield with sheep in and the first thing they do is let fido off the lead and they all answer my dog is well behaved would not do any harm.They do in fact enjoy what they do and so do not need to seek other pleasures.
    Cannot see what else all this land could be put to better use and if rewilding is thought of as alternative well the cost of managing the massive amount of land would be colossal even maintaining all the walls would prove impossible and the hills would look a mess.O f course probably 95% of population would be against rewilding anyway.
    Maybe if they acknowledged the fact that they owed the general public including yourself a big thank you then it would make you feel better.
    Whatever anyone thinks they do however provide lots of food that would otherwise only increase the national deficit and lots of churches and other buildings and jobs have in previous centuries come from wool income and helped to make this country what it is today.

    1. I must be one of those 5% Dennis, and what follows will make me unpopular in some quarters, my partner keeps sheep! Much of The Lake District, upland Wales and the Pennines are massively damaged and biodiversity poor because of years, indeed centuries of sheep grazing, it is at least as damaging as grouse moor management for our uplands and for what.
      Most upland sheep cost more to shear than the fleece is worth and despite the subsidies the meat is very expensive ( cheaper to produce on the lowlands or indeed in New Zealand, where farming is not subsidized). All in all it is a very bad deal for the tax payer ie. you and me, sustaining a way of life that is otherwise unviable, that is hugely damaging to the environment yet with little or no benefit.

    2. Lots of food? I wonder exactly what proportion of home produced meat, mainly lamb, comes from the uplands? There will be contributions to the lowland breeding stock of course – but I am unclear how dependent we are now on the uplands for breeding stock in the lowlands. If we were under a clear food security crisis, we would introduce rationing and a controlled diet, and would surely focus on the most efficient ways of producing this domestically. It doesn’t feel as though we are anywhere near this.

      Also there are lots of buildings and cultural assets that are due to our history, including the slave trade, which we value today for a wide range of reasons, including many due to the wool trade. I am not sure how this relates to the issues raised in Mark’s review – the reasons for supporting activities in the uplands.

      I am unsure whether it is even good for agriculture in the UK – our key challenge is surely overall productivity of the industry overall – which would lead to more focus on the lowlands.

  2. I was a shepherd some time ago, but I guess being a lowland shepherd makes somewhat of a difference. True we had townies around us, gates left open, sheep shot with crossbows and dogs worrying our sheep. But being a shepherd is still In the blood. It really gets inside and certainly for me, was all I ever wanted to do.
    Shepherd – yes, that’s me!
    I haven’t read the book, but would like to say that, even back when I was active we realised we had to keep up and change with the times. Footpaths are part of life, as are visitors who watch you working a dog (embarrassing at times)!
    One has to modernise, keep up, accept change; those who buy the meat/wool, pay for you to be out there doing what you love.
    If that means stop grazing some bits, planting trees in others, lower stocking rates, so be it – it is 2015 – he who pays the piper calls the tune!

  3. Mark, you hit the nail on the head when you say:

    “This book…..takes for granted that keeping sheep is a sustainable way to make money from these hills. It takes for granted that the meat production is of sufficient value to justify this land use. It neglects to discuss the impacts of this land use on wildlife, water quality, flood risk or greenhouse gas emissions.”

    These impacts are immense. People are so used to seeing almost naked, grassy hills that it’s hard to imagine how much more wildlife there could be, how much more water could be held onto and gradually filtered and how much more carbon-rich soils could be retained – if only the hills were allowed to grow a thicker cover of vegetation.

    As every sheep in the uplands costs the taxpayer a considerable amount of money, this environmental utopia could actually be achieved at lower cost than the current system – if only we could divert more money into real environmental management rather than letting it be spent by these proud hill famers on keeping so many sheep.

  4. Just one other thing,they work seven days a week,how many of the sixty million population have to work that hard.
    The only place I have seen Plover chicks for years was on a hill sheep farm,Badgers free from BTB as well there,even a female Hen Harrier and lots of Hares.
    It is not all bad,some of these hill sheep farmers even feed the Hare in a bad winter because anyone who has not lived in these areas has no idea about the difference between winter conditions in the hills to winters in the lowlands especially winters in lowland towns.

    1. They work 7 days a week doing what ? They don’t even count them until they are taking them to market to see how much money they will make and maybe throw a bale of hay at them when there is snow. The sheep are perfectly capable of looking after themselves with minimal intervention!

      1. D Hewer,well I do not think in well over a thousand comments I have put on Mark’s blog and probably several hundred on his RSPB I have ever commented that someone else talks a load of rubbish so for you I make a exception.

  5. How much a year does the RSPB get in subventions from the taxpayer and in legacies from estates that would otherwise pay tax?
    It’s a charity and couldn’t survive otherwise.

    The difference between such charities and farmers is not how much they get from the state but whether they are for or against people in the hills and uplands.
    Sheep farming produces something from the land for the benefit of the people and extends human civilisation into the hills.

    Environmentalists and such like, at bottom, hate people; that’s the difference.

      1. I would have thought you might have tried to explain why it’s ‘nonsensical’ rather than simply being insulting.
        But, there you are, that’s the eco-freaks for you, people haters! Thank you for proving my point.

        1. Philip – your first comment here was so daft (and insulting) it really didn’t merit anything else.

    1. ‘extends civilisation into the hills’ you mean overgrazed land with eroding soils?

      1. No.
        You have no idea what you’re talking about. What is the evidence for overgrazing and soil erosion caused by sheep?
        The more grass is grazed the more it tillers out and forms a mat of vegetation. If it is not grazed it forms clumps with bare soil in between which can erode.
        Where exactly is this soil erosion happening? Please tell me.

        1. Phillip,

          I assume your the same Phillip Walling that wrote ‘Counting Sheep’? If so then clearly you are no fool, however thus far your comments on this blog are doing a good job of convincing me otherwise.

          You ask, ‘What (sic) is the evidence for overgrazing and soil erosion caused by sheep?’ Well the answer is quite a lot if you can be bothered to look.

          Yes there are primary factors that play a major role in soil erosion (soil type, topography, rainfall etc) but it is now well recognised that livestock, particularly sheep can play a major role in accelerating and maintaining soil erosion in the uplands. But don’t take my word for it – look into the research.

          Try starting with a report titled ‘Upland Soil Erosion Data Analysis’ produced by the National Soil Resources Institute (NRSI) at Cranfield. I tried to paste a link but it wouldn’t work for some reason, but you’ll find it through Google.

          If you want to go more in-depth then try the following papers written by Dr Robert Evans, you’ll have to pay for them though but I suggest it will be money well spent if the new found knowledge saves you from embarrassing on yourself on a public forum again. I guess it must stick in your craw somewhat to have an ‘eco-freak’ understand certain aspects of your own industry much better than you do yourself.

          Enjoy 😉

        2. I see it whenever I take a walk in the Ochil Hills, the open peat haggs that are like open sores, overgrazed stream banks with no riparian vegetation and earth banks collapsing into water courses. Iceland is further down the road than Scotland in terms of excessive sheep grazing and likewise their land should be a hell of a warning for us, more than one Icelander has pointed out Scotland is headed the same way. Ask people like Ron Greer hat he has to say on the subject. You seem to be high on reactionary bile and limited reason. I believe civilisation is more about education than wrecking the environment – I wouldn’t say you are a friend to either.

  6. Paul,I have to agree with much of what you say but overgrazing is a thing of the past and much over emphasised by some who should know better.It cannot be in farmers interests to have overgrazing which would keep sheep in poor condition and lots of sheep on the hills are kept on quite good pasture anyway that has been improved also I believe numbers are now limited by the rules.
    Interestingly all the critics never seem to come up with a viable alternative or I might be persuaded to change what I think.
    UK lamb is a help in our balance of payments setting imports against exports and in that sense importing New Zealand lamb costs the country a great deal of money.
    Regarding New Zealand lamb maybe they do the same as with their milk products charging their own population more for the lower quality so that they can export better quality for low prices.Not really a nice policy.
    No you are not unpopular with me but I would like those who would like to see sheep off of the hills say what is the alternative.
    The cheaper lamb from lowland is very dubious also because of the difference in land price and also sheep are basically kept on the hills because what can be grown there is limited whereas in the lowlands I would guess there are at least ten alternatives to sheep on grass.
    I doubt there is enough money in the coffers to buy all this hill land to do other things with it after previous Government left message saying something like “there is no money left”.

    1. The alternative is trees, scrub and increased levels of wildlife. Dry stone walls do tend to provide a wildlife habitat, but one local sheep farmer in the Lake District has sold off a lot of his walls as building material. If I am not mistaken this same farmer is on the Lake District Planning Board

      1. D Hewer,just one small thing missing there.
        Who is going to buy all this millions of acres of land.You try asking the few people who want it turned into trees and scrub.You would not even get 1% of what was needed.

  7. There is a link here to the grouse moor debate in that it begs the question what will happen to these vast tracts of land if the incumbent uses were to cease and how would those uses be financed? Like the rest of us those who own (or rent) the land need to earn a living and, for them, the assets that have to give them their essential income is not the hours they give to their employer in exchange for a salary but the land that they work in different ways. We may look at them as “filthy rich” landowners or farmers living in “beautiful” countryside but maybe this land dependency is for them a curse as much as a blessing at times.

    Ban the shooting or take away the farm subsidy and what then? Our host here admits to being an “old leftie” and sees a case for public ownership but I am not so sure about that. Why would we have any confidence at all in Government of any hue being able to manage uplands in both environmentally sensitive and economically viable ways? More costly to the tax payer than the current farm subsidies I’d vouch. On the whole I suspect the current occupiers are more in tune with the needs of their landscapes than a bunch sent from DEFRA

    As for the book I have it and I’m looking forward to reading it very much but I’m stuck into another recent bestseller about a grieving lady and her Goshawk at the moment…interesting how these accounts of connecting with “country” are proving to be best sellers.

    1. The uplands don’t actually need very much management. At the moment in the UK, we spend huge amounts of money on fencing and tree planting and on persuading farmers to take their sheep elsewhere in winter to protect what’s left of the vegetation. If there weren’t so many sheep the trees would grow on their own, we’d not have to pay for the away-wintering and the money could be spent on all sorts of other things. That only really leaves footpath repair – which is already done almost exclusively by public bodies and NGOs.

  8. For an excellent example of what can happen when shepherds are progressive and take on board new ideas, in fact initiate them, then the Pontbren farmers are a good antidote to the attitudes this book seems to have highlighted (I also encountered them from some crofters when I was working on Lewis). Tree planting to create shelter, alleviate flooding and as a source of cheaper sheep bedding, brilliant and inspiring story – blue print for the uplands?

  9. Think the writer of this book was on BBC news and they pointed out he did part time conservation work.Of course lots of them do help wildlife of certain types on their own farms.

  10. Just to say that I had hill farmers in the family and spent a lot of time working on one myself. They don’t all ‘hate’ townies and tourists! In fact, one of the pleasures of being there was the variety of such folk who found their way to the farm for one reason or another. All were treated very hospitably. While I enjoyed this book, it seems to me that the author is quite angry about something and, as you say, ought to acknowledge that the way of life he so cherishes depends on taxpayers’ support .

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